Chapter 10

The very next morning, Ashitaka and San received a rude awakening. They had curled up in the stable with Taro and Jiro, and that was where Jigo found them.

"Well, here you two are!" he cried heartily. "I've been looking all over for you! Why'd you sleep out here, huh? Wasn't it cold last night?"

"Tell that fool to shut up before I bite his head off," Jiro muttered.

Ashitaka pushed his way out of the cocoon that was Taro on his left and Jiro on his right and stood up. He had been warm and cozy with one brother acting as a bed and the other as a blanket, but now, Jigo had spoiled it. "Good morning, Jigo," he said, trying to be polite. "What is it you want?"

"I came to see you, lad," he said, sounding extra-chummy. "What do you say to an early morning ride, hmm? Have a little time to chat?"

Ashitaka raised an eyebrow. He knew he could count on Jigo's not harming him (the Emperor would kill him if he tried to hurt Ashitaka in any way), but why did Jigo want him to go for a ride? He knew that it wasn't to be sociable.

"I don't feel like riding," Ashitaka said, not bothering to sound apologetic.

San snorted from within her cozy little nest made of brothers. Ashitaka had divulged a wish to go riding just the other day, but she knew that if it came to riding with Jigo and not riding at all, there was no question of what choice he would make. Both of them detested the monk and avoided him as if he were a human who hadn't bathed for a month.

"Oh, come on, you're a great rider," Jigo persisted. "Where's your elk? Or would you like a horse? You could ride either one."

"No, thank you," Ashitaka answered him, glaring a little. "Is this about the immortality thing that you won't let go of? Trust me, none of us are immortal."

Jigo stared at him. "Huh? You're not telling the truth, are you?"

At this point San crawled out from underneath Jiro and growled at Jigo. Jigo stepped back, looking alarmed.

"Did she just…?" Jigo started, but then he gave a little nervous laugh. "Well, I guess it's too early to expect anyone to be sociable, so I'll just see you later, all right?" With that, he scurried out of the barn, giving nervous little glances behind him.

"Thought that would get rid of him," San said, smiling. "I don't think he believed you, though. Oh, well. His stupidity."

"Thanks," Ashitaka said, giving her a hug by way of greeting. A moment later, he had the surprise of his life when San nuzzled him, much the way Taro or Jiro would nuzzle her. What on earth did that mean? Even more surprising was when he found himself doing the same to her. He decided that since no one else noticed he wasn't going to comment on it.

They spent the morning just relaxing, but still keeping an eye out for any watchers. When they couldn't see anyone, Taro and Jiro would keep their noses open, and according to the two brothers, there was always someone nearby. There was no chance to sneak away that morning, or when they tried, that afternoon. It was as if the Emperor knew what they were up to and was determined to keep them there without appearing to. All of the people they met were perfectly legitimate: soldiers drilling, servants rushing to and fro, nobles strolling outside, and Jigo stopping by to say hello. There was no reason for these people not to be around, but it appeared that they were around when it was the worst possible time for Ashitaka, San, and her brothers.

"This is driving me crazy," San growled in Wolf. "I mean, how can so many humans appear so quickly? They're always where you don't want them!"

Ashitaka nodded. "It seems whenever we head towards the walls or gates, they're there." He noticed a moment later that he had also used 'they.' He was human as well, wasn't he? So why did he use 'they?' He couldn't fathom it.

"If only we were allowed to eat them," Taro said, looking pointedly at San and Ashitaka. "That would solve the problem nicely."

San snorted in derision. "That would just start another war, and then we'd have even more humans in the forest. Don't be stupid."

Towards suppertime they headed to a back garden to make more plans. Apparently, they weren't going to be able to sneak away quietly as they had planned. No, they would have to do something else.

"Maybe we could just leave?" Jiro suggested hopefully. "I mean, we have no reason to stay."

"They'd come after us," San pointed out.

"A memorial pilgrimage?" Ashitaka suggested. "It could be for Moro or the Forest Spirit."

Everyone looked thoughtful. Then, Taro shook his head. "They might try to accompany us."

San swore under her breath. "I'm stuck. There's no way to leave without having them come after us."

"Well, there's one other thing," Jiro pointed out. "There's the clan gathering."

Everyone looked at him. "What clan gathering?" Ashitaka wanted to know.

"Well, it's just what it is," Jiro said, standing up and shaking out his fur. "It's when the entire Wolf clan comes together. You didn't think it was just us, did you?"

Ashitaka shrugged. "I haven't met any other members of the Wolf clan. How can we be sure they won't try to go with us?"

Taro grinned. "Humans are forbidden."

"Well, that leaves us out," Ashitaka said, referring to himself and San.

San glared at him. "Speak for yourself. Besides, you're part of the clan now. You've been marked. I like this idea. The only problem is, how can we keep curious little humans away?"

Taro stood up. "I have an idea about that. Here's what we'll do..."

They all leaned in close to listen, smiling as Taro outlined his plan.